Let’s face it. With television shows like “Dance Moms” and “Toddlers & Tiaras,” streaming in our daily consciousness, it’s no wonder the title of “Stage Mom” sends chills down the spines of happy Americans. And let’s not forget Gypsy’s Mama Rose, the determined, stop-at-nothing drama mama of them all (“This time, for ME!”). This idea’s been with us for quite some time — everything’s been coming up roses for years. Exaggerated images of parents scheming, bribing, and clawing their child’s way to the top, or in this case — the top of the cast list. Images of adults putting down children (the competition), or over-analyzing/creating a conspiracy theory as to what went wrong in that audition/how it was rigged. These images are sometimes more entertaining than the actual show.  Luckily, they aren’t true. Well, not often.

Let’s also face it. We all think our children are talented, or the most talented. I have fond memories of shaky VHS recordings of school plays from my childhood where my parents zoomed in on me the whole time. “Mom! Why didn’t you get any shots of Annie?! The show’s called Annie, and I’m only the butler!” I don’t even have children yet, and I’ve already decided my future children are more talented than yours. I think we’re supposed to. We support, we nurture, we encourage, and we love. We want the best, we want to protect, we want everything to work out in the end with a big song and dance number. Spoiler alert: doesn’t always work out that way, but having spent a fair amount of time on the other side of the casting table, what we see and hear is often very encouraging. The bottom line is parents are (and should be) partners in the process. When casting/working with younger actors, you’re honestly casting the parent(s) as well. That doesn’t mean you have to find non-speaking roles for Mom or Dad in Grover’s Corners (although, that happens sometimes as well.) That means, you’re going to be working with the parent(s) a lot as well. Parents play huge, irreplaceable roles in the process — keeper of the calendar, chief communicator, chauffeur, chef, tutor, encourager-at-larger, disciplinarian, and balancer of all the things — just to name a few. Chances are, when you send an email about schedule changes or costume notes, Mom or Dad are going to be on the receiving end. When you need the support of the cast at a Saturday set build, or when you need to add another lengthy rehearsal, you need entire families to support you as well. You’re casting parents who will be a supportive cast member throughout the process, and to be honest, it’s not the most glamorous role. If you’ve spent a few hours sitting in the Four County parking lot in Barboursville, wondering if you should drive back to Charlottesville for a few hours or just stick it out, you know what we’re talking about. It’s also a two way street — it requires mutual understanding. As directors, producers, and actors, we have to understand what a commitment theater is for the whole family. We may only see one member of the family on stage, but there’s so much familial sacrifice and dedication that makes it possible—late nights, rushed meals, running lines, and frequent trips to the gas pump.

We’re fortunate to work with so many wonderful parents as partners at Four County — parents who understand how difficult these decisions are, how difficult and challenging the process can be, and who work to help lift everyone up, not just their own rising star. Whether it’s volunteering in the bistro, on a set build, or sticking it out night after night during rehearsals, we couldn’t/wouldn’t do what we do without them.

Being that the parents rarely ever get to take a bow, it’s exciting to shed a little more light on the families behind the scenes. There are so many incredible parents involved with Four County Players, this could be a twelve-part series, however, a few of the parents involved with our most recent production of Once On This Island were gracious enough to share their insights with you.

The Burton Family: Natalia, James, Kaitlin, & Kaleb

The Burton Family: Natalia, James, Kaitlin, & Kaleb

The Harris Family: Sharon, Carter, Jessica, & Joshua

The Harris Family: Sharon, Carter, Jessica, & Joshua

  1. How long have your children been performing/involved in the local arts community? How did they first get involved?

Natalia & James: Kaitlin was singing and dancing along with the Chicago soundtrack at age two, so I think performing has always been a part of who she is. She did several shows in early elementary school with Jefferson Youth Theatre and loved it. But her passion really grew when she was cast as Brigitta in The Sound of Music with Black Box Players at ten. She’s been in back-to-back shows ever since.

Sharon & Carter: Both of our kids started performing at around five or six with the Missoula Children’s Theater, a traveling youth theater group.  The Paramount Theater brings a team from Missoula to Charlottesville each summer, and participating is a great way for kids to learn about musical theater.  The week-long residency is relatively inexpensive, involves a short-term commitment, and ends with a play performed on the Paramount stage.  In that short time, kids learn so much about performing as an ensemble, projecting, acting, staging, and choreography.  For both of our children, that initial experience was all it took to foster a love of theater!

2. Were you all involved/active in the performing arts before your children? Do you ever find yourselves on stage or working behind the scenes?

James: I was in several shows at Albemarle High School, which is actually where Kaitlin attends high school now.  She helped rekindle my love of theater, and since then, I’ve been in a number of shows with her and our son, Kaleb. It’s been a blast. I also really enjoy working behind the scenes and helping with set building.

Natalia: I grew up playing sports, but it’s been fun learning all about the world of theatre as an adult. You won’t find me on stage (I am so impressed with the bravery of everyone who does it!), but I love to take photos and help with things behind the scenes.

Sharon & Carter: No. we have always loved attending musicals, plays, concerts, and all kids of performing arts, but have never had a desire to be on stage or behind the scenes.  Watching our kids perform is a favorite pastime of ours.

3. How many hours/miles do you think you’ve logged in the car with rehearsals? Are you looking forward to your children being able to drive themselves to rehearsals/shows, or will you miss it? 🙂

Natalia: Too many to count! I will absolutely miss it. We have some of our best conversations on the way home from rehearsals.  I love hearing about the whole creative process.

Sharon & Carter: Depending on the traffic, we have about a 40-45-minute drive to Barboursville.  Between dance classes, music lessons, auditions, rehearsals, and performances over the past eleven years, the number of miles and hours are probably best not counted.  There have been occasions in which we have had children rehearsing in different towns, which is always a fun family challenge.  Add in sports practices, and we wonder if we ever spend time at home.  Yes, the miles driven and hours spent waiting do seem daunting when viewed alone, and some days are easier to pile in the car than are others, but the overall experience of being parents of kids who love the arts makes the miles driven and hours spent waiting all worthwhile!  It has been quite helpful having a third driver in the house this summer.  Can’t really say we were sad to share the chauffeuring duties or that we missed the drive.  🙂

4. What’s your favorite thing to do to pass the time during rehearsals?

Natalia: Because so much of my time is spent in the car, I spend a lot of time listening to audio books or the Hamilton soundtrack in my car while driving and waiting.

James & Natalia: And if we ever have the time, we love to go to the BBQ Exchange in Gordonsville!

Sharon & Carter: On the rare occasions when we actually get to spend time together during show runs, it is a nice change of pace to be able to actually talk face-to-face with each other.  We also enjoy getting to know other parents whose kids are involved in the shows.  Tech Week can be an incredible bonding experience.  🙂

Joshua Harris (Center) & Kaitlin Burton appearing in Once On This Island

Joshua Harris (Center) & Kaitlin Burton appearing in Once On This Island

5. It’s often said that a director is casting the parents as well. What advice do you have for parents who may be new to the performing arts community/just starting to get involved in theater?

Natalia: Be supportive and encourage your child that the most important thing is to have fun.  Be prepared that there may be a lot of time spent driving, waiting outside rehearsals, and helping your child do things like run lines or shop for costume pieces.  But it’s all about supporting what your child loves to do.  I would also say to try everything.  Charlottesville has so many wonderful opportunities for kids who love theater — school programs, Four County Players shows and summer camps, Black Box Players, DMR Adventures, Live Arts, Heritage Theatre Festival, etc.  It’s a great community of supportive people here in Charlottesville, with many opportunities to learn, perform, and grow.

Sharon & Carter: Encourage your kids to at least give it a try.  Being involved in community theater is definitely a family commitment, but the benefits are innumerable.  Both of our kids have learned and grown as a result of their performing arts experiences, and they have formed friendships, and made wonderful memories.  Numerous studies document many benefits from involvement in the arts, such as improved grades and test scores, enhanced leadership skills, and increased self-confidence.  For parents, seeing how much fun your kids have and watching them become more self-assured are invaluable.  Summer camps, such as those offered by Four County Players are a good start.  Watching kids who perform for the first time in these camps is magical.

6. Auditioning can be a challenging process for the whole family — how do you best support your children through that process (triumph, rejection, sportsmanship, etc.) ?

James & Natalia: We’ve learned that it’s a world where sometimes you are simply the wrong height, or your voice or physical traits are just not what the casting director has envisioned for a specific character.  Not getting a part doesn’t mean you weren’t “good enough.”  Our philosophy is to have fun, give it your all, be proud of yourself, and be humble.  Champion the success of others the way you hope others will support you when you succeed.  Every audition is a good learning experience.

Sharon & Carter: Preparation is a good starting point, particularly for musical theater auditions. Our kids are better equipped at handling that process than we are.  They are both humble by nature, are serious about the process, and support each other and their friends.  Since our community is rather small, and since they have both been involved for a number of years now, they often find themselves auditioning with friends.  One of the amazing aspects of the community theater world is the support and encouragement that members of this community offer each other. For families and kids new to the process, helping your child know what to expect from their first audition can definitely help calm the nerves.

7. What’s been your favorite theater-related memory for your family?

Natalia: In 2013, Kaitlin was cast as Annie in Annie and her dad, brother, three cousins, aunt, and uncle were all in the cast.  Her aunt played Miss Hannigan and her uncle played Daddy Warbucks.  It was really special and memorable for our family.

Sharon & Carter: Watching both kids perform on stage together in Bye, Bye Birdie is definitely a favorite memory.  Not only was the show filled with many talented actors and a joy to watch (and yes we watched it all), but having both kids share the experience with each other was very special.  Our whole family made lasting friendships from that experience.

8. What’s your favorite part of theater/having a family involved in the performing arts?

Natalia: It is just so much fun seeing all the elements of a production, and I’m always amazed by all the work that goes on behind the scenes.  And then to see a whole show come together in the end — there’s something magical about it.  It is also fun to see our daughter in different roles. I love it when I forget I’m watching my daughter or people we know, because I am so captivated by the story.

Sharon & Carter: Hearing the excitement as our children share stories and experiences, watching them rehearse together at home (whether or not they are both in the show), and seeing the sense of accomplishment on their faces when they walk out of the Cellar after a performance – all of these are favorites.

9. What’s the most challenging part of having a family involved in the performing arts?

Natalia: Balancing time between late night rehearsals, tech weeks, and shows with our family’s schedule.  Family dinners are pretty much unheard of once rehearsals begin, so we try to carve out time to just be together as a family, even if it is brief or on-the-go.  Sometimes both kids have things going on on the same nights, so there’s lots of tag team parenting during shows.

Sharon & Carter: Juggling dinners and getting to rehearsals are two of the biggest challenges.  Especially during tech week, meals are often eaten in cars, and family time is quite scarce.

10.What do you like most about being involved with Four County?

Natalia & James: Four County is one of the most warm and welcoming communities we’ve known.  There are so many incredibly talented folks who are also down-to-earth, supportive, and kind.  And people who want to help our daughter grow and succeed.  It’s refreshing.  We have also been so impressed by the professionalism and quality of the productions at Four County Players, and the variety of shows offered.

Sharon & Carter: Participating in community theater, particularly at 4CP, affords young actors an astonishing amount of experience and knowledge.  The musical knowledge that is offered, the overall experience of working as an ensemble, and the opportunity to perform for audiences in such a special theater are all amazing benefits to being involved with Four County.  Four County creates a family environment and it has been heartwarming to see our kids embraced by this family.